Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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translation from Danish by Marilyn Nelson

I Said Nothing
from Vejen går gennem luften (The path leads through the air)
Denmark: Gladiator, 2017

Hell no, and nobody was going to see me cry.

I never swear, but it was a cold winter. In the mornings, frost rattled in the trees. The bushes in the garden stuck up out of the icy ground like thin, rusty iron staves. When I came home this afternoon, the pale sun shone on icicles that hung from the eaves like sabers. And not because I was particularly hungry today, but because I got home first, I began immediately to put together a meal out in the loft under the roof. It stank of sod from the chimney that grew thin ice flakes out on the rafters, so I had to keep on my jacket and mittens while I made an omelette. But there wasn’t time to stand and get tears in my eyes over cutting onions on the cutting board, it had to be done quickly, already before I had managed to light the gas burner Regitze and Irene were breathing down my neck, asking when I’d be done.

Lars and Ole ate at the cafeteria, but sometimes they didn’t go there for lunch because they were serving sago soup or fried liver or meatballs in celery sauce. Today they came storming up the stairs to the gas burner and stepped on my heels.

Ow, I said.

They were serving stockfish today, we’re dying of hunger, said Lars, we’ll just grab something, and the two of them brushed past my back and in under the roof.

What do we have, said Ole.

Lots, said Lars.

Bullshit, that’s what Greenlanders always say, said Ole, who sat on his haunches and looked into the shelf under the table we have some cheese crackers and a can of mackerel.

There must be some sausages, said Lars.

No, said Ole, but get a couple of forks, there’s some mayonnaise, I’m starving.

Let’s just hope it’s ours, said Lars.

Can you just loan us some bread, said Ole and looked at me.

Take what you want, I said, but since you’re here, what about cleaning up?

What about cleaning up, said Ole.

Have you forgotten it’s your turn?

It had been their turn for a couple of weeks. There were bread crumbs everywhere, there were black smears of margarine on the gas burner, there was a river of dishes to wash, yes, of course, said Ole and looked up from the bread slicer, we haven’t forgotten, right, Lars?

Yeah, said Lars.

What, I said.

No, I meant, said Lars, we haven’t forgotten.

We’ll do it on Thursday, said Ole, thanks for the bread.

Yes, we’ll do it on Thursday, said Lars.

What in fucking hell do you want, said Regitze, as they came out into the hall where she and Irene were waiting. When she saw the open can of mackerel, she held her nose.

You want a taste, said Lars and held out a fork full, you’re welcome to take some mayonnaise too.

Thank you very much. Will you please stop sticking that fork in my face, said Regitze and stuck her nose in the air. She held three leeks in one hand and a kohlrabi in the other. Irene stood a couple of steps behind her with a cauliflower in a pot.

What is it with you two, said Ole, did you forget to pee on litmus paper this morning?

I bit my lips together and looked intensely down at my omelette, but my laughter bubbled up, a little of it clucked out of me. So, I acted like I was coughing, and dared not look at Ole. Regitze always insisted that meat was a poison and that you should use litmus paper to keep track of the acid balance in your urine. OK, I’m done, I said, and turned off the gas.

Thanks, said Irene.

You ought to put something acidic in your body, Regitze. How about a little mackerel? said Lars again and scratched his head with his fork.

Barbarian, said Regitze. She shook her back and pulled her sweater together around herself, and while Ole and Lars disappeared laughing into Ole’s room, she and Irene got busy making the whole loft stink of cauliflower.

Thanks for your letter, my dear. Even if it was short. But I know you, and how fiery you can be, one thing I treasure about you is how quickly you forget your anger and are yourself again. I’m so busy, I really don’t have any time to write, but I’ve figured out what we should see in the theater, and I’m looking forward, Bjorn had written, be your sweet self again, dearest, of course you’ll come!

It was the first letter from Bjorn, and it came shortly after his visit, but I don’t think so, you can forget about that, I hissed into the walls. I stood with my back to the window in the restroom in the college’s cellar while I read his letter for the I don’t know how many-th time. Then I flushed and went upstairs to the others. I sat there in the entry hall and waited for it to be time to go into our physics class. I took my book out and sat across from Preben, and he helped me with Galileo’s law of gravity. When we went upstairs a little while later I walked with Lotte. You look so strange, she said, is something wrong? No, what does that mean? Well, I can see you’re upset about something. It’s just the law of gravity, I’m only hoping I won’t be the one Clasen chooses to go up to the blackboard, I said.

Two days passed, and then a postcard came from Bjorn: Now I have the theater tickets. Even though you haven’t answered. I’m expecting you.

And later, many days later, just before the trip to Australia, China, New Zealand, or wherever it was they were going to go to do their idiot gymnastics, another postcard came: My own dearest. I was so disappointed that you didn’t come. I’ve tried to get time to travel to Jutland before I leave. But it isn’t possible, there’s so much to do, and now I have to pack, I’m sorry we didn’t manage to see each other. But I love you. And I’ll write.

Yeah, you do that, I thought.

But I won’t.

And then it snowed.

It came early. Late in November. The ground’s ice green cold began to press up through the floors and walls of the house. Every night forests of white frost trees grew up over the black panes in my room. They pitched and filtered themselves into each other, and when it got light in the mornings, they had stretched their branches all the way in over my bed. They sprinkled white frost over my quilts and stuck their stiff white nails into my mouth. When I went out onto the stairs, the house’s cement foundation was even more dirty with the snow, because it alternately thawed and froze again. And the paint peeled off the front door, there where it met the doorstop, where it was kicked every time someone came in. A pair of bicycles stood in the bike rack in front of the house, three or four others lay in a heap and looked like dead deer with black hooves and antlers tangled together under the snow.

And one morning in early December I stood shivering at the wash basin and turned the tap. But there came only a slurping cold smell of zinc. And as I stepped out of the bathroom Kranow came storming up the stairs like a black cloud. He coughed. He still had the night in his throat, and in his rush he tread down the back of one of his shoes. In his hand he held a wrench. Good morning, I said.

Is there any water, he cried.

No . . .

Not in the toilet either?

No . . . My teeth chattered.

Well, dammit, he said, the whole house is frozen solid, just let me come in.

And while he got on his knees and started to bang on the pipe under the sink, I stayed there standing on the landing and watched him through the open door. The floor was uneven. It shone black with many layers of old varnish, a hairpin lay in the crack in the floor inside the door, and I looked at his narrow shoulders and at the gooseflesh behind his naked leg, all of his thin body cast a shadow on the wall. And I looked at his hands that were thin and white. The wrench was big and black, and his hands trembled as if they didn’t know what they should do, or what they should bang on. And I thought that now I’d have to brush my teeth in the cold tea from last night, and that I hadn’t gotten washed up. Kranow started to sweat, small droplets ran down his neck, which was also white, but spotted with freckles. Goddam shit, he said.

But that evening, after the plumber had been there, there was finally water. I stood outside in the loft and made tea for Lotte and Mona and Lizzi, who had come home with me after gym class. I was freezing after a shower, the raw cement cold beat out from the roof shingles, and my hair still stuck to my head like a cold, wet helmet, as Lizzie came out to get the cups.

Dammit, what are these old shit-holes we all live in, she said with chattering teeth as we came into the warmth again. She passed a cup to Mona and started to blow life into her fingers. Your so-called kitchen is even one number worse than mine, what do you pay for rent?

Thirty, I said.

That’s way too much. Shouldn’t you find something else?

I pay forty and there’s my kitchen, said Mona who had started setting the table, but what about you, Lotte, will you be moving out soon?

Lotte sat on the divan and dried her hair. The towel was white. Her hair was black, but afterward it became red as usual and began to curl at her temples. After Christmas, she said from deep inside the towel, I’ve found a room upstairs from the post office. Then she appeared out of the towel and looked over at Mona, do you really need a kitchen? Can’t you just do take-out when you get hungry?

Mona went over and sat down on a chair. It creaked. She sat a little while without moving. Then she took a deep breath and said, only when I’m hungry enough. And then she pursed her lips together and looked at us, a deep fold appeared at the corners of her mouth. The rest of her face was smooth and white as porcelain.

What is it, I said.

A weak flush rose in her white cheeks. Her voice trembled suddenly, and the words came tumbling out of her mouth, as though they had lain in there curled together for a long time, my father doesn’t like Hugo much.

Lotte shook her head.

Lizzi looked up, what’s the place called, where your father is the priest?

Norre Vindby. Mona bit her lip.

How far is that from here, said Liz.

Half an hour by bicycle, do you have any milk? Mona looked up at me, I can get some.

Here! Lizzi shoved the milk bottle across the table, what is it with Hugo and your father, you’ve never mentioned that.

Well . . . Only to Lotte. Mona blinked, my father did everything he could to get Hugo accepted to a different teacher’s college. Her eyelashes were short and pale. And she looked at us with her big light blue dove eyes, as if we could help her.

Priests are like that, said Lizzi, what’s wrong with Hugo?

My father . . . Mona’s nostrils flared, as if they were made of tissue paper, he’s nothing at all like what you think. You have to get to know him.

But how long is it that you’ve been sweethearts, you and Hugo, said Lizzi.

Almost four years, said Mona down at her gray pleated skirt, we went to confirmation classes together and were confirmed by my father.

He thinks for sure you’re sleeping with Hugo, said Lizzi.

For sure, said Lotte.

Mona pressed her legs together and pulled her skirt down over her knees. She looked down at her feet. Her chin trembled, and the blush rushed up in her porcelain cheeks. And all the way up the part in the middle of her smooth light hair that was combed straight back and held tight to her head with shiny hair clips on the sides.

And I, for one, hope you are, said Lizzi.

Oh . . . said Mona, stop it!

That handsome guy, said Lizzi, it should only be me!

But it’s not, Lizzi, drink your tea! Lotte pushed the teapot across the table, not everybody here is as loose as you are!

Yes, if you only have that, I thought. I hadn’t forgotten the time when I was an office apprentice and was preparing to take a business school exam, the time when I studied and studied for ten days straight without understanding one single sigh, because I was afraid something had gone wrong. I hadn’t forgotten when I had to go to the restroom every half hour, when my underpants were rustling dry as sandpaper, every time. I also hadn’t forgotten how I was saved in the last second, because after all everything hadn’t gone wrong. Or what a tremendous relief it was recently, when I finally bit the head off of all my shame and went to see the doctor.

But I said nothing, that kind of thing we never spoke of. And Lizzi didn’t at all seem like she’d ever had that kind of problem. She was witty, foul-mouthed. She was really good at math, she played the piano, her short, thick fingers banged so cheerfully loud and hearty on the keys that all mistakes were clearly overwhelmed. She always had a boyfriend at home in Salling, and she always went there for weekends because she was was always going to a dance. Right now the boyfriend was named Aksel.

Yes, I’ll definitely try to go out more and have fun, laughed Lizzi, someday you’ll all have to come home with me for the weekend. And we’ll go to the community center, there’s a dance every Saturday.

Mona looked up, is this one of those dances where people get into fights?

So the blood flows, said Lizzi.

Mona blanched, do they get drunk? Do they hit girls?

Mona, it’s not that dangerous, said Lizzi, but it does sometimes happen that somebody has one beer too many, and maybe gets a couple more for himself out of the cooler, it only bleeds a little bit. She suddenly looked over at me, by the way, how’s it going with you and that guy Bjorn?

Hey, look at this! I got up so quickly that my chair wobbled, I went over and took three packs of cookies out of the brick cabinet and set them in the middle of the table, I opened them, what do you say now! I smiled. And I said nothing.

But the others did, they shouted, brown cookies, vanilla cakes, meringues! Did you just get a box from home?

Yesterday, I said. Clean laundry and Christmas cookies my mother baked, have some! But about the room, I said, I’ll never find a better place than this. It’s cold in the winter—yes. The doors and window frames need to be painted, the kitchen is primitive. But the children are sweet, I watch them when the Kranows go out in the evening, and I think it’s a beautiful house.

Beautiful? Lizzi popped a meringue into her mouth and shook her head, you don’t mean that! Didn’t you yourself say . . . cookie dust sprayed out of her mouth . . . that it’s depressing?

The younger boy is six months old, I said.

Mona smiled. And the big one?

Two, I said, and when I’ve gotten them to sleep, I sit with my feet up on the horsehair sofa with the dog. Before Mrs. Kranow leaves, she always says I can read their books, and that I should just go out and look in the kitchen cabinets if I get hungry. So, I drink tea and read or listen to music on the record player til they come home. And I can tell you that it is a beautiful living room, I said, with fine old windows.

Which are drafty! White dust from the meringue pulsed out of Lizzi’s mouth.

The house has a black mansard roof, I said, looking at her.

Man . . . what?

It sounds distinguished, said Lizzi.

Naaah . . . But it’s an old construction, and gives the house some large, fine dormer windows. Anyway, that’s what my father says.

But what good are they, said Lizzy, if the whole thing isn’t weather tight?

It’s not that not-weather-tight, I said.

It’s an ancient pile of shit, and it’s way too big! Lizzi poured more tea into her cup, it’s not at all the right house for people like the Kranows.

Why not? Lotte reached over the table and took a cookie.

Neither one of them knows how to do anything but sit on a chair and read books, said Lizzi.

And what’s wrong with that, said Lotte.

Lizzi ruffled her damp hair, what do you think would happen if those two had to really go out and earn a living?

Earn a living? Lotte shook her head . . . but what do you think they’re doing now?

Yes, well, seriously, said Lizzi, what if they had to have real jobs?

What are you talking about, I said, aren’t you yourself going to school to be a teacher?

Maybe I will be one . . . if I have to, but my father says that nowadays the money’s in agriculture, and I’m doing all I can to find myself a man with a big farm.

Lotte laughed, and that would be Aksel, perhaps?

He could very well have more acres, smiled Lizzi.

Why wouldn’t you rather be a salesgirl in some nice boutique while you wait to get married, said Lotte.

I did plan to work in a bakery, said Lizzi, but my father says a girl can’t have better life insurance than a teaching credential.

But anyway, you’re going to be a farmer’s wife, I teased.

Yes, why not? I can definitely do that. But Kranow is a clumsy oaf. I passed by one day when he was going to look after his chimney. He could hardly figure out how to put up the ladder, laughed Lizzi, and I’ve heard it ended with him falling and taking off the edge of the roof with him.

The chimney has been fixed, I said.

But who fixed it? Lizzi took another meringue, it certainly wasn’t him.

Kranow’s the best Danish teacher I’ve ever had, I said.

But bo-o-o-ring, sneered Lizzi.

No, sweet, smiled Mona.

And that stupid way he comes storming into the classroom.

What, said Lotte.

He always throws the door open and shouts, Are you writing, people?

Yes, right now, maybe, while we’re reading The Hourless, but you have to admit that he knows something about Holberg.

But what about Diderichsen. I bet no education students in the whole country other than his and Mrs. Kranow’s have fucking grammar problems on their exams, said Lizzi. What’s wrong with true and false? I hate all that damned semantic field analysis!

And I love it, I could have said . . .

But I said nothing, I smiled and joked as I always did when we chatted about the teachers, and we continued that way for the whole evening. About Johannes Clasen, who every year duplicated a twenty-page physics compendium which for the last few years students had dubbed Johannes’ Gospel and memorized. And that meant that everyone got top grades on the exam without even opening the textbook. And about the beautiful Mrs. Kranow, whom we had once in a while as a substitute teacher in Danish, and who always looked so tired. And about Thrane, who had six children, and had warned us against Summer With Monica, which was a coming attraction in the kiosk at the travel film theater in the inn. And about Thrane’s wife, who played the piano for gymnastics class.

I think she’s sick, said Lizzi.

Why do you think that, said Lotte.

She’s as thin and gray as a pin, it must be all those children, snorted Lizzi, instead of making her pregnant every year Thrane should take her for a steak dinner or to out to dance. And what kind of film is it, that he’s so much against?

It’s Swedish. He’s called Bergmann, the man who made it, and I don’t think people who belong to Moral Re-Armament are allowed to go to movies, and in any case they certainly aren’t allowed to dance.

No, that’s sure enough true, said Lizzi, hey, by the way what are you three doing for Christmas vacation?

I’m going to go home to my mother and have creamed winter kale, I said.

Lizzi looked up, you’re not going to Copenhagen?

Naaah . . . I said, looking straight into her eyes.

So maybe you’ll go there for New Year’s?

Naaah . . . I became very calm looking at Lizzi, I always spend New Year’s Eve with people at home in the village.

Back in the fall you seemed to be crazy about that guy Bjorn, said Lizzi, so maybe he’s coming for the Shrovetide fest in February?

I raised my cup to my mouth and lowered my eyelids. I looked at her through a small crack, like out of an almost closed oyster shell. Nah, him, I said and took a mouthful of tea . . . no, that wasn’t serious at all.

And so we chatted about a devilishly intricate vented lining which we had to sew before the next handwork class with Miss Ravn. And about the practicums in the nearby schools, which would begin in February.

Just give me handwork, said Lizzi, and I’ll definitely manage it.

No, I’d rather have math, said Lotte.

I’d rather do English, said Mona.

I said nothing.

We sat, the four of us, each with her own expression on her face, each with her expectations, each with her feeling at the thought of the practicum. Mine was fear. But I had to stow it away, until I was alone. And so my mouth stayed in front of my face and smiled and talked all evening, and no one could see the tears that stood like a log in my throat, no one saw how I was.

Or how it was.

And how was it, then?

It was like the sun falling down. It was like being young and restless and walking past a country village’s houses on a snow slick pavement in thin soled boots. It was like going alone to the travel film in the inn a couple of evenings later. In the dark the street was windy. The gusts made one of the hardware store’s gas tanks clatter. The yellow headlines of the Press Radio’s news hung behind the window’s melancholy curtains.

The innkeeper sat at a table in the inn’s front room as I came in. A bare bulb shone down on his bald head, good morning, little miss, he said, and sat up straighter. And when he had sold me a ticket, he got up and went over and stood by the door to the movie room and clipped the ticket. Inside in the half darkness I saw at first only a pair of lovers, who sat in the back row holding hands. But a little later I laid eyes on a gray neck. As I sat down I saw that it was Kranow’s neighbor, whose name was Falch and who was also a teacher. And even though I was still alone, and even though I had read in the newspaper that the carefree and rebellious Monika ended up getting pregnant, I sank down in the red plush and tried to dream my way to sun and summer and light nights on a lake on an archipelago in Sweden.  

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